Would you like to raise a thankful child?
If so, you’re not alone. Parents’ desires to raise children who are happy, healthy, and, yes, grateful are documented in countless website postings, TED talks, and parenting guides. Indeed, family specialists predating the modern-day parenting movement acknowledge gratitude as among the traits of a healthy family.
But how? Children may express gratitude regardless of whether they deeply experience it. They may learn to say thank you or show appreciation without the underlying experience of gratitude or, as one six-year-old girl in our studies said, “They may say it, but they don’t mean it.” Although this may help children meet social expectations, they may miss out on documented benefits of gratitude down the road for building stronger social relationships, improving life satisfaction, and enhancing psychological well-being and overall health.
Gratitude is more than behavior—it is also an internal experience. As I described in my previous article for Greater Good, our research team for the Raising Grateful Children study has developed a four-part model of gratitude that involves noticing the things people give us, thinking about why they give them to us, connecting how we feel to the receiving of gifts, and expressing appreciation. The key to helping kids develop the gratitude habit is to engage all four parts of the model: NOTICE-THINK-FEEL-DO.
How can we help children mean it? Here is our list of the top five big things we can do to get the little things right each day.
1. Model thankfulness
Parents who try to be grateful have children who demonstrate more daily gratitude. In addition, parents who are more grateful are also more likely to engage in other types of parenting behaviors that foster gratitude.
Although modeling gratitude includes expressing your appreciation to others, we also think that children may benefit from seeing their parents model the NOTICE-THINK-FEEL parts of gratitude. Modeling these internal experiences can be as simple as saying your thoughts out loud.
For instance, parents can help children notice not only a gift that they have been given but also the deeper meaning behind a gift—or the gift behind the gift—by talking to their children about their own experiences of receiving: “I love this sweater that Aunt Dottie sent me, but what is really special to me is that I know she was thinking of me when she bought it. This is my favorite color and she knows that. It just reminds me that she loves me enough to go the extra mile and get something that she thinks I will really love.”
2. Embed it
Parents play a critical role in creating the environments or niches in which their children develop. These niches may be as formal as the after-school activities or as casual as the playground where they choose to hang out. Our work shows that parents who select niches for their children at least in part guided by the goal of fostering children’s gratitude are more likely to follow through on that intention. In turn, children who are involved in more activities selected by parents to foster gratitude more frequently display gratitude.
We believe these findings are significant because they suggest a way that parents may affect their children’s gratitude—by being more mindful of their own goals for their children. Parents make frequent decisions that shape the environments to which their children are exposed, and they select those environments based on a set of sometimes competing goals. Do you foster healthy bodies through sports or civic engagement through community service?
To the extent that gratitude is one of the goals parents hold in making these choices, children may benefit in more ways than one.
3. Talk about it when it’s there
Moments when children do express gratitude can provide important teaching opportunities.
In the Raising Grateful Children project, we asked parents to talk with their children about a time when their children showed gratitude. Studies of children’s memory show that when parents and children reminisce together about positive events, parents can improve children’s recall by how they ask questions. For example, parents who use more open-ended, child-focused language have children who remember more details about positive events.
Such conversations may even help children connect what they notice in the gifts they’ve received to their thoughts and feelings at the time—and even how those thoughts and feelings motivated acts of gratitude toward others. In our ongoing work, we are testing whether such conversational strategies indeed scaffold the receiving experiences of gratitude and connect them to the expression of gratitude.
4. Talk about it when it’s not there
Across the board, parents in our studies have a harder time talking to children about times when their children were not grateful. These may be times when their children showed entitlement or simply missed the opportunity to experience gratitude. These missed opportunities can be embarrassing and even infuriating for parents.
So, how do we keep our cool and help children to use these challenging situations as a learning opportunity?
To talk about missed opportunities for gratitude, we suggest that parents start by using the same conversational skills they use in talking with their children about times of gratitude. Listening carefully to children’s experiences of these moments, through open-ended child-centered conversation, may provide parents with clues as to what is getting in the way of their children experiencing gratitude. Are they making assumptions about how a gift came their way? Are they focusing on something else in the moment that is important to them and distracting? Do they not yet have the skill of seeing the situation from someone else’s perspective?
By first learning about how children see these moments, parents may gain new insights into how to get these moments back on track and help children to catch opportunities for gratitude when they come along.
5. Repeat it often
The experience of gratitude can be complicated and, like any skill, may take practice, reflection, and time.
Making sense of gifts we receive through our thoughts and feelings is even more challenging, because it requires children to use other-focused developmental skills like empathy and perspective taking. As children gain these competencies, through maturing brains and practice, experiencing gratitude is likely to become easier.
And learning to connect thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can be a lifelong skill that we all re-work over time. As children grow, their opportunities for experiencing gratitude increase. Children who can learn to receive the gifts behind the gifts in their lives may be better positioned to take advantage of opportunities for experiencing gratitude. And, in turn, to express their gratitude to others.
There is a lot of advice to parents out there about how to foster gratitude in children. We know that it can be overwhelming to parents. Our last piece of advice? Start slow. Pick one thing to work on until it becomes a habit and then build from there. After all, we raise children one moment at a time.